2018 winner

Sticks and Stones


2018 Winning Short Story

by Alan O’Gorman

Alan O'Gorman Photo 3

And then there was the time a fat white lump appeared to us on the water like a holy visitation. Huddled quietly on the pier in the stillness of a summer’s morning, the mutilated carcasses of jelly snakes hanging from our mouths agape, we gazed at the strange creature. Going down onto the pontoon for a closer look, we watched the lump with disbelieving eyes. I wasn’t sure what it was—this thing trying to slip past the slumbering town, the only object on the water besides the boats and the buoys. It looked too white, too meaty, too human to have come from the sea. Yet it moved with a steady purpose, ghosting through the mighty bay, its course set for a cold discharge into the Celtic Sea. We stared, wrapt in quiet reverence, until Boo Boo shattered the spell with a sharp thin stone he sent whistling over the black water, missing the lump and skimming violently across the surface before the oceanbed sucked it in.


Sprung to action, we left the pier in a hurry. We followed it down the stony beach behind the promenade, where the ground itself, slipping beneath us in flinted shards, provided ammo for our onslaught. Every time a piece of rock struck the lump it made a sound like the kick of a football. When we’d beaten its hide enough times it turned to finally reveal a face, startling me with its puppy’s stare. What is it? we said.


It’s a seal, Eoghan Murphy proclaimed and no one challenged him. A seal. It was inflated and white and grotesque and dead. Dead as a doorknob. Dead as a hock of ham. It turned away from us again and we pursued, filling our pockets for the rest of the way. Above us in caravans and houses, our parents nursed their hangovers.


Sand kicked up behind our runners as we hopped the rivulet of pollution perpetually running from the hotel and landed on the seaweed-specked strand. We leathered the seal with rocks behind Annabel’s cottage. My arm was going dead. But I’d hit it only once. I wanted to burst one of its eyes open or smash in its dirty nose. I was the oldest so that was expected.


We ran along the sand, past the stables and the caravan park and the tennis court, until the beach tapered off, pressed by the tide against the large cliffs, and the bay lay open before us, little studs of light flashing on the water’s surface. Doubling back, we veered up the incline towards the wooded cliff, watching our seal float off on its own. It was like leaving your dog off its leash. A strange panic was in my chest as we separated.


We burst into the shade of the woods and hit the canopied path that runs along the cliff’s edge. Below us now, the seal vanished behind trees and hedges and reappeared again and again in dazzling white flashes and each time I thought it wouldn’t be there, as if something would come up from below and reclaim it. But it didn’t belong to the sea anymore. It looked so unnatural out there, more likely to have dropped from the heavens than rise from the waters. It was drifting close to the rocks, bobbing along. We overtook it and ran down the steps to the cove, waiting for it to float past. As it came around the corner, Seán Hegarty skimmed it with a sharp flat one slung viciously underarm. I hit it a good three or four times before it was out of reach.


Back up to the woods we ran, the dried mud beneath our feet bulging with thick roots. I pushed my way to the front. We ran through a little gap in a fence and came out on the open clifftop. The horizon lay before us shimmering. I felt the heat of the sun on my arms and legs. A horse watched us from a field to our right and to the left, on the other side of the bay, lay the town of Kilbrittain.


Looking back in along, the seal was reluctantly making its way around the corner and out to sea, as if it were able to decide on the matter, as if it were not a slave to the current. It floated right in by the rocks at the foot of the cliff where it isn’t so steep. We wanted to walk down to the water’s edge to receive it but there was an old couple down there. The woman was sitting on a blanket and the man was tending to a fishing rod he’d propped in a stand and they hadn’t seen the seal approaching.


We went farther up the cliff to a high point where they wouldn’t see us. I rested against the thin metal light pole, its white paint almost engulfed by copper rust, and watched the seal come. Its face was pointing towards Kilbrittain. It looked like it was sleeping on its side. I leant over the cliff edge, straining to see the old couple, but I couldn’t make them out. I went to turn back to the boys when Eoghan Murphy’s arm almost took the head clean off me as he came stumbling past, flaking a stone that torpedoed through the air and just missed the seal’s head. The boys all looked at me. I wanted to wait until it was closer, so the old couple wouldn’t see us, but instead I slung back my arm and let one fly. It went curling round past the seal’s back, crashing into the water. Then we all let loose with lovely, flat skimming stones. Stone after stone slapped and bounced off beast and water, like raindrops in a puddle.


We pelted it over and over and it turned facing us and its eyes held a sadness in them, as if it felt each smack, and then stones were tearing and scratching its face. Each rock-thud made me feel sick. The force of the blows. As though the soul was being beaten from the body. Finally, the seal was beyond us and I was glad to be rid of it. The cliff turned off to the right. The seal did not follow its path. We watched it a while, hands on our hips, as it drifted away towards Horse Rock, wondering if it would be pulled towards this jagged monolith on the horizon, its home perhaps, where a colony of seals sat yawning in the morning sun. Would they look up sadly to see their cousin, who’d ventured out for food the night before, returning now like a brutalised boy, savaged by the hands of tiny humans?


I waited, hoping it would clear the rock altogether and be pulled far away from this shoreline. But it was impossible to know, for it was shortly nothing more than a speck, a blemish on the water’s face, and then it was nothing at all.


We gathered our breaths and thought about how we’d fill the rest of the morning.


The breeze felt good as we headed back along the cliff. We were about to step into the woods when Frank stopped and nodded down the rocks at the elderly couple.


The old fella was standing erect with his hand on his forehead, looking out towards the horizon. His wife was sitting on a cotton blanket with her legs stretched out before her, feet crossed at the ankles. She was wearing a white short-sleeved summer dress and her hands were placed on the rocks behind her. Her head was bent towards the cloudless sky. She sat there, glowing in the sun. White hair, white skin, white dress.


I reached into the pocket of my shorts and took out three smooth and curved slabs of stone, pinching the ends of one of them between my index finger and thumb and feeling its soft edge sit in the crook of my hand. I stepped back and flung it down on top of them. The stone bounced off the rocks next to where she was sitting. The man’s hand shot down from his face. She unfurled a terrified scream like a little girl. She was up on her feet quickly. She shielded her face with her arms, made herself pencil thin as I rifled the remaining two stones with everything I had, stumbling forward as I released them. I watched the first one sail way over her head and the next one just miss her bony shoulder and puncture the water behind her with a hiss. All my blood was in my face as I ran after the lads.


We hid in my caravan for an hour and then me and Boo Boo decided to go up the village to the shop. We were coming past the stables when the car whipped up. She was quick for an old one and before I knew it she was out and lashing me into the face. I tried to block her, but her hands were strong and hurt my wrists and arms. She smacked me three or four times across the cheeks and eyes. All I remember is a fluttering blur and a light red tint over everything. I don’t know if Boo Boo said a word; he just stood off to the side. The old man was slow as a house getting out of the car and it seemed like minutes before he was holding his wife back. But by then she’d run out of steam. He held her shoulders as she held her knees and panted, staring up at me as though I’d exhausted her. There were tears in the nooks of her face. She looked like someone’s nan. But she’d called me awful names: a devil, a bastard, a little cunt. As he sat her back in the car and they pulled off, they looked like any old country people. I wondered if they had any kids or grandkids. I felt weak. My face too was soaked from crying.


I told Boo Boo to go up the village on his own and I went back towards the caravan park. Coming up the hill four of the older lads in the falling-down tennis court stopped playing and looked at me.


What happened you? Ciarán O’Connell shouted.


I didn’t want to tell them because they’d only laugh. But I did anyway. I stopped and looked up at them through a film of tears. I said: Some old lady slapped the head off me.


And I waited for the laughter. But no one laughed, and no one spoke, as I walked up the hill towards my caravan.




Alan O’Gorman will be reading at the the John O’Connor Lyrical Literary Lunchtime event (Sun, 4 November, 1-2.45pm). Find full festival programme HERE.